The incredible survival of "Europe's last dictator"

He was branded Europe's "last dictator" by the Bush administration. Many have predicted his demise. But Alexander Lukashenko has survived, cunningly exploiting his country's strategic position to play off Russia against the West.

Over the past couple of years the frostiness with Europe has thawed. Belarus has joined the EU's Eastern Partnership Initiative. Sanctions imposed on the country's leaders over human rights have been relaxed.

Meeting European foreign ministers recently, the president repeated a promise to hold free and fair elections. He has also invited observers.

Analysts predict another Lukashenko victory, amid a splintered opposition.

It was very different four years ago, when opposition rallied behind Alexander Milinkevich.

Largely silenced by state-controlled media, he lost the election and suffered a campaign of official harrassment that saw him jailed.

Other Lukashenko opponents have been murdered or have simply disappeared.

The West protested, but more recently the tension has been felt between Minsk and Moscow.

Belarus has long benefited from cheap Russian oil and gas. No longer. After several rows, another standoff loomed this winter that could have hit supplies to Europe.

Crisis was averted when a deal was reached, paving the way for Belarus to join a free trade zone with Russia and Kazakhstan.

Ties are patched up, for now. Relations have certainly improved since last summer, when a Russian media campaign blasted the Belarus leader for rigging elections and brutally suppressing opponents.

Perhaps both Moscow and Brussels have realised that Europe's last dictator is not going anywhere just yet.


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